November is fast approaching. The mad dash to write an entire novel in 30 days is just over the horizon. I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month since 2006 and I’ve been the Municipal Liaison of the Massachusetts::Metrowest since 2011. In my years of doing this crazy project, I’ve learned some things that work best (for me) so I’ll take a moment to dispense some advice.
- Learn your software early. Every year there are dozens of people (myself included several years ago) that open their laptops on November 1st to try out their newest writing software. Even the simplest switch from Microsoft Word to its online equivalent, Google Docs, can be a jarring and difficult learning curve. It’s impossible to write when you’re not sure how to use your writing software. Take a few days to tinkering and test the software. See if you’re going to like it or if you should stick to what you know.
- Know your endgame. I don’t necessarily think you need to know the outcome of your book. I have never plotted for NaNo, at least not past the first few chapters. What I do think is necessary, where do I want the character to be. Do I want them to survive? Do I want them to fall in love? Do I want them to change their view on the world? Do I want the universe to win or implode? I never finish NaNo with the same endgame as I begin. My last book started with the idea of superheroes defeating the big-bad and yet somehow the story turned into characters facing the loss of their humanity. But when I was lost, I was able to ask myself, how do I get them there? The journey for me, is more important than the destination.
- Have a love affair with your character before November 1st. This year I knew the book I want to write. Kind of. I knew who the main character was. Kind of. He’s the average guy, in an average job, doing average things. Then the extraordinary happens. I wasn’t excited for him or his story. I thought about killing him and the book before it was even conceived. Then I wrote a short paragraph about him and his struggles. He became less ordinary. He has got some serious problems and he’s panicking as he tries to cope. I wrote the second paragraph (I did it as a journal entry he wrote at the suggestion of his therapist.) At the end of the journal entry, I understood Brian Gentile. He’s not ordinary. He’s desperate. He’s fallen from grace. He’s complicated. He’s a loving dad. He’s a hated divorcee. He’s real now, and I am incredibly excited to document his journey. I’m rooting for him.
- Research takes time (away from writing.) Worry about fully understanding your 15th Century Victorian garb later. Not sure where Main St. leads or what the cool kids of the 40’s were saying in casual conversation? It does not matter. Unless the research on Soviet Submarines is needed to write a story taking place on a Soviet Submarine, then it can be skipped. I wrote a book that takes place in the 1920’s and goodness knows I got my facts wrong. But facts can be corrected later. The characters saying, “Groovy” or “Sick” doesn’t matter at this point. You can beautify and enhance your setting later.
- Be willing to admit perfection is unrealistic. My first NaNo book is on cinderblocks in the back yard. It’s a disaster. The characters are predictable, and I got lost in the research (See #4) so the book continued to fall flat. I didn’t understand my world and at the end of the book I realized I was trying to justify garbage. It’ll stay on cinderblocks, and maybe I’ll set fire to the book, but, underneath the horrible writing of a lost cause, there is a plot that hasn’t been finished and may still find the light of day. I’m still proud I did it, and I’m thankful I have this idea dwelling in the back of my head. Perfection wasn’t an option, and it took me a while to grasp that, but in the end, it’s made me a better writer.
- Understand NaNo is a game. You ever play Monopoly with people and then play it with another group? Notice how nobody can decide on the same rules of the game? Everybody treats Free Parking differently. NaNo is similar. The goal is 50,000 words, but truth be told, you are the rule maker. Want to continue a work you’ve already started, then go for it. Want to write poetry, why not? Only make 20,000 words? You’re not a loser at the game of NaNo, you’re a winner of your edition of NaNo. I’ve always found the people who take NaNo seriously to be a bit out of touch with the spirit of the game. I wear a cowboy hat in NaNo because it imbues me with magical powers. True fact. Have fun with it, and when you find yourself not having fun, find a way to hold onto that childish joy that makes us all a little crazy. My favorite NaNo’ers are the ones who laugh at themselves. Have fun.
- You must write to write a novel. I saved the most obvious and the most difficult for the end. Every year I start November hearing great ideas for novels. People are so enthusiastic to tell me their ideas and I get caught up in the well laid mental diagrams they draw. However, by mid November I hear people still telling me their ideas instead of telling me about the writing they’ve done. I get nervous when I hear them still speaking about their idea. The best advice I’ve ever heard about life, “I wish I could tell my 16-year-old self, you have to practice the guitar to be a rock star.” The people who have been holding onto the “Great American Novel” for decades are thinkers, not writers. Writers must write.
So as you begin to think about the crazy journey in front of you, realize you’re amongst a supportive group who want you to succeed. We want to see your Orcs come to life and your Fifth grade Debutante come to life and grace the pages. We want you to finally ask yourself, “Did I just become a writer?” That moment for so many of us is a turning point in our lives and I’m proud to led the rally and watch people on December 1st say, “I finally did it.” Good luck, I have faith in you.